Sunday, January 24, 2010

A Sobering Reality - Living in a Surveillance Society

Perhaps you’ve heard that we’re throwing a bit of a party here in Vancouver next month.

For fear of the wrath of the IOC, here is an image of the host city...
and not 5 interlocked rings.

There has been a lot of discussion about which aspects of the Olympics are ethically wrong, economically broken, or socially corrupt and which aspects aren’t. It would require a blog, not just a post, to delve into it all in any real detail. Perhaps there is a non-partisan blog out there that does, but I am not aware of it and this post is barely hanging on to proper skeptical themes in the first place, I shant be straying further than this. But there are certain elements within these Olympics-issues that do fall into the domain of rational thought, such as surveillance.

Recently, I had to sit through most of a day listening to a hysterical co-worker rant about one of the many perceived issues about the Olympics, and it struck me as representative of a much larger issue: It isn’t very hard to find someone who believes on some level that increasing surveillance in our world (Whether it's RFID chips, full-body scanners, or CCTV cameras as examples.) is leading us inevitably towards an Orwellian future. Indeed the notion is so prevalent that I’m going to hazard a guess and say that the majority of people consider it a potential at the very least. It strikes me as a concern we should heed, but one that needs to be considered on a realistic level, not the shrill “they are turning us into a police state and none of you sheeple even raise your heads to care” fashion that I was subjected to by the fore-mentioned co-worker and others.

For the Vancouver Olympics, security measures are vague as a necessity. The main focus of security is two-fold. First, as a street crime deterrent – or at least the adding of an additional tool to combat crime in high-traffic areas. (There is a much larger discussion to be had about the displacement of crime due to surveillance and whether surveillance is indeed a deterrent, but that is not at the heart of this post.) Secondly, prevention of terrorist activity. (As with street crime, displacement and efficacy are in question.) If the specifics of security measures were well outlined, they could be much more easily circumvented by those who would seek to commit acts of crime and terrorism. In the long run, the apparent benefit of surveillance is as a record – to be used later in crime solving and prosecution – and even the degree of that is not free from criticism.

For the Olympics a wide spectrum of unusual (in the sense of – not typically used every day) surveillance efforts are being employed or are believed to be being employed. One of the most visible - to use a reductionist example - is the employment of CCTV cameras. CCTVs are already a significant part of our lives, and they serve as a symbol of the surveillance society that alarmists fear, watching us with their unblinking eye, feeding the data through face recognition software and traffic pattern analysis algorithms. Vancouver had new cameras installed recently, to be monitored by the Vancouver 2010 Integrated Security Unit. Possibly many of those cameras could be permanent, despite the warnings of privacy experts – the City of Vancouver has yet to commit to a decision about maintaining the cameras after the games.

The number of cameras added to Vancouver streets is a fraction of the number added at the Beijing games, according to a report last year from the University of Alberta. The report also notes the tendency to maintain a portion of the increased surveillance as an aspect of the legacy of the games, and anti-surveillance advocates are quick to point out that big events like the games are the thin edge of the wedge.

Okay… that is more than enough context.

I pose a somewhat rhetorical question: What is being defended?

The answer for most respondents would
be privacy or perhaps the right to privacy. I’ll accept the first answer, but you may be surprised to find out there is no “right to privacy” in our society. The word “privacy” appears precisely nowhere in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms – and the same goes for our neighbours in the “land of the free and the home of the brave”. There is no right to privacy in the American Constitution or the Declaration of Independence. Surprised? I was too, when it was pointed out to me some years ago. Somewhat sobering too, I’ll admit. But dragging myself back on topic... What is being defended? – Privacy.

What privacy is is not such an easy thing to determine. It means different things to different people and it affects many different aspects of our lives. I fully agree that there is a certain expectation of privacy when it comes to sensitive information – information that draws in the borders of our lives: my Social Insurance Number, my credit card information, my bank PIN, the password to my Google account, and so on. I would prefer to not be under any kind of audio-visual surveillance in my home... but at the same time I try to live my life without any shame (either in action or in self-image) so if there was, would it really bother me that much? Hard to tell.

On the streets am I willing to give up being seen going about my business amongst the throngs of other people if it means that the streets are a little safer in the moment and that if something should happen, there is a better (if small) chance that it would be brought to justice and/or prevented in the future? You may have guessed my opinion on that – yes, I am willing. But all of these circumstances are ultimately, as I have just alluded, the domain of opinion and/or personal preference – and critical thinking loses clout in these situations.

So, you ask, why am I carrying on about this under the auspices of a skeptical blog?

Because it strikes me that if we accept the premise of the extreme argument that this is all leading towards an Orwellian dystopia if we don’t stop it now, then we really need to think about things rationally, because moving forward with the emotionally fueled “we can’t allow it to go the bad way, so we must prevent it entirely” approach may well be the most destructive way to proceed.

For starters, I propose as fact that we as a race has yet to find a way, where destructive technology (or any technology) can be undiscovered. That is, barring the destruction of the society that bears the knowledge – and even this self-defeating option is unreliable. The best we can ever hope for is newer technology that renders the older obsolete by antidote or counter-measure.

High-tech surveillance is here to stay, and indeed it is only going to get more discrete. It is only a matter of time before the average person can, for a price, fly a camera and/or microphone in through an open window of your home and, PRESTO! – you are someone’s own personal reality TV show.

Yes, that will probably be highly illegal. But as the price of such technology drops lower and lower, the ability to effectively police it will become more problematic. And the act of criminalizing it – when has that ever stopped people from doing things? As with anything that has been criminalized, all that imposing such legalities upon such technology will accomplish is that only criminals and various arms of government will have access to it – either legitimately or via black market resources. We could plug our ears and eyes and scream “la la la can’t hear you” (ironic as that would be) and pretend we aren’t being watched, or we could roll with the punches, and get used to the idea.

In his non-fiction book The Transparent Society, Dr. David Brin (I have mentioned elsewhere his notion of CITOKATE as a concept that all skeptics should be aware of) suggests that a possible option for avoiding a hellish slide towards an oppressive surveillance society is to pull some social ju-jitsu on the rapidly developing surveillance technology of the world, and accept a future of near total transparency. I don’t think he or I actually believe that this is a transition of thinking that can realistically happen outside of generational turns of worldview, but the technology is advancing rapidly enough that we can only do ourselves favours by embracing it rather than fighting it.

In a transparent society, abuse of surveillance by the powers that be can be mitigated by ensuring that all non-private spaces are under the watch of the ever present eye. Quis custodiet ipsos custodes? (Who watches the watchers?) Under this model – everyone does, indeed everyone becomes the watchers. All cameras become available to everyone. Just go to the website and check in what is going on downtown, or at the Olympic site, at police headquarters or even inside the very room where the cameras themselves are routed through to the internet. Rather that being overseen by an anonymous few, all are watched by one another from below - sousveillance, if you will.

In a sense, there is even a surprising amount of privacy in this model. When everyone is watched and available to be watched most or even all the time, then in many senses we are desensitized to not only the eyes upon us, but more importantly, our ability to make undue use of such surveillance. Think about the private conversations that you’ve had in restaurants. Are you concerned about being overheard? Not really, though there is nothing stopping eavesdropping – and undoubtedly people do eavesdrop. But do you really care? No. Not unless you are talking about something seditious!

Which of course brings up the notion that really, unless you are doing something you wouldn’t want the world to know about – say, a crime – then what does being observed, or at least potentially observed in all public areas cost you? Indeed, if anyone’s eyes can see anything, then that in and of itself also keeps the watchers in line. Police – should you be of the opinion that they are prone to brutality – are becoming more and more aware all the time that they must perform their duties with utmost respect and adherence to protocol as even now, thanks to camera-phones, we are already potentially on camera at any time.

This is all very hypothetical – make no mistake. But the implied contention that surveillance must be curtailed or we are headed towards oppression is not only a false dichotomy, but it also ignores our inability to suppress technology once it has been discovered – you cannot put the genie back in the bottle.

Is the option so broadly sketched in above the only alternate option? Probably not. It’s also hardly a comprehensive look at the internal issues that would need to be hammered out if it was the only other option. But without giving in to Big Brother, it accepts the reality that for the foreseeable future we are all being watched far more than we are immediately comfortable with, and we had better get used to it, ‘cause those eyes aren’t going away – even if we were to try to suppress it.

My original opening line of this post was “Prepare for a reality that you aren’t going to like.” I’m going back to that now, as I close. Thinking and writing about this has made me feel like I’m peeing in even my own cornflakes. But it is part of the skeptic’s role to step back from emotion and consider circumstances dispassionately and not reflexively believe the most attractive idea. Wishing surveillance out of sight is only going to achieve just that – it is not going to make it go away. At worst its a Thelma and Louise strategy. At best, its a lot of wasted effort. No matter how reprehensible we find facts, they are still facts, and thus we must explore options for working with surveillance in a positive and open society.


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